The film that has been released in the United States and the United Kingdom as [The] Iron Mask, with the article disappearing if you (like me) are west of the Atlantic - that banal little title covering up a truly dumbfounding number of AKAs in at least English and Russian including Viy 2, Journey to China, Viy 2: Journey to China, Mystery of the Dragon Seal, Mystery of the Iron Mask, Journey to China: Mystery of the Iron Mask, Iron Mask: Mystery of the Dragon Seal, Mystery of the Dragon Seal: Journey to China, undoubtedly some other combinations of those that I missed, and also The Legend of the Dragon, to my French friends...

Phew. Let's start again. Iron Mask is a fascinating little cursed object, and not just because it has a seemingly infinite number of potential title/subtitle combinations. It's basically what you get when a Russian filmmaking team is trying to make a bad, cheap carbon copy of the Chinese industry's bad, cheap carbon copies of Hollywood CGI-driven popcorn movies (it is, in fact, a Chinese co-production). Absolutely nothing about it seems legitimate; it's shiny in a weightless, hollow way that has not even the slightest tang of legitimate, graspable physicality. The cast is divided, not equally, between actor speaking English, Russian, and Chinese, so no matter what language one watches it in, there will be plenty of mismatched, detached overdubbing, but only sometimes, so your brain has to keep pivoting back and forth (that being said, it seems that every line has been overdubbed, so the sync does wander around a lot). The story is an overstuffed morass: the film is two hours on the dot, and it's not an especially well-paced two hours, but at the same time it can't help but feel like if the film had a lot more room - like, maybe another film - it would have perhaps been able to fit all of this material into a shape that felt less cluttered and thus maybe actually had something like momentum that it could build up.

As some of those many alternate titles point out, this is in fact a sequel, to the 2014 fantasy-horror epic Viy, an enormous hit in Russia; don't feel bad if you've never heard of it, because it only barely ever saw the light of day in English-speaking territories, and not under that name (depending on which English-speaking territory, you might have encountered it as Forbidden Empire or Forbidden Kingdom, though it is surely likelier that you didn't). It is, oh so very loosely-speaking, an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's 1835 horror story, centered on an English cartographer named Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) who was penetrating the east to make newer, better maps, early in the 18th Century. What happens in Viy doesn't matter to us in the slightest, because even though it is summarised (in a little fragmentary montage that makes things honestly much harder to follow than if they'd just left it alone), almost nothing other than Jonathan's existence actually gets set up in that film. And even that seems, for a time, like more than Iron Mask needs; Jonathan only really enters his own movie after a pretty substantial portion of the running time has been spent setting up the incredibly convoluted political intrigue that Jonathan crosses path with: Tsar Peter "the Great" (Yuri Kolokolnikov) has been kidnapped as part of a plot by an evil witch (Ma Li) to control the sacred tea-growing grounds where a very special kind of tea grows out of the eyelashes of an ancient dragon. Peter has been shipped all the way off to the Tower of London, where he is kept prisoner, locked in an iron mask, by one James Hook (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The other prisoners include an old, grey-haired Chinese man (Jackie Chan), who teaches the tsar kung fu.

And now, at least, we can start to unpack what the hell Iron Mask is, a little bit: only the second movie to have both Schwarzenegger and Chan together onscreen. How exactly this was made to happen, I cannot even begin to say, but having turned it into a star vehicle, director Oleg Stepchenko and his co-writers put some effort into making the most out of their investment. Unsurprisingly, given their level of international celebrity and attendant price tag, Schwarzenegger and Chan get very limited screen time (though more than the late Rutger Hauer, who show up for about 45 seconds to look miserable in a huge Georgian wig); Stepchenko has built the entire film around this limitation, understanding rather adroitly that if he could just begin and end the movie with his two superstars, it will seem like they actually mattered to its narrative. And so the film kicks off with an entirely spurious sequence about Hook's prison, and how the old master helps Peter escape, with the geriatric action stars going through some very light choreography, including a genuinely funny gag fight, where Schwarzenegger keeps pleading with Chan not to take any of the priceless antique weapons out of his collection. Indeed, Schwarzenegger's natural charisma is used to pretty satisfying, goofy effect in his small performance; the film knows that it's silly, and tries to amplify this, though I'm not sure that it's ever effective outside of Schwarzenegger preening around with a ludicrous moustache and bright red waistcoat. It depends on whether some of the most dumbfoundingly bad lines of dialogue were deliberate jokes or not, I suppose.

Anyway, the film makes sure to lead with Chan and Schwarzenegger, which is really unfortunate given that neither of them actually have much to do with the plot; Peter does, though it's a bit foggy what. At any rate, he and Jonathan's beloved Miss Dudley (Anna Churina) travel to China in one plotline, while the cartographer and the exiled princess-in-hiding Cheng Lan (Yao Xingtong) travel in another, all of it culminating in a battle to stop the witch and save the dragon, with the help of an army played by several Chan-trained stuntmen, and some fun, if unmistakably goofy robot-suit looking things that use steampunk technology to shoot electricity and the like.

It's damn near impossible to follow, but at the level of the individual scene you can generally tell who we're meant to be rooting for, so it's more or less possible to watch the thing. And we do eventually get to the dragon, and you tell me when a movie was ever made worse by the climactic appearance of a giant dragon, even one made with such rinky-dink visual effects as the ones we see here. The point being, while Iron Mask is confusing as all hell, and that makes it a bit of a dreary slog - the horrible mismanagement of editing between the different characters and plot threads also makes it a slog, to be completely clear - it is, paradoxically, one of the liveliest, most quick-changing dreary slogs I have ever seen. There's just so much stuff in the film, virtually all of it goofy, and sadly none of it as goofy as Schwarzenegger playing a Beefeater; but there's something galvanising about the inept cheesiness of the Russian production jamming against the cluster of narrative globules tying to appeal to both the Chinese and the Americans, making the whole movie feel a little bit like earnest, eager kids having an especially grandiose game of dress-up. And the way that the convoluted unraveling of the plot gives off such a strong "making it up as we go along" vibe doesn't at all discourage that feeling. This doesn't make Iron Mask fun, or even so-bad-it's good, but it does mean that the film feels boundlessly energetic, like the absolute fucking stupidest puppy dog that can't stop tripping over its paws and bashing into walls at top speed. Not great for the puppy, maybe even a bit pathetic, but there's something adorable about how completely incompetent it is, and the seemingly inexhaustible wells of energy fueling it. Iron Mask is, at least, never done throwing goofy matinee movie shit at us, and as aggressively pointless as this can be and generally is, there's something engaging about its proudly threadbare showmanship.